Mumbai and Chennai

Last week I had an op-ed piece in the Times of India. It’s about the risk to the city of Mumbai from a tropical cyclone landfall and storm surge.

Mumbai is on the Arabian Sea, where tropical cyclones are relatively rare, and the city hasn’t been struck by a serious one in a very long time – well beyond living memory. If it were, though, the results could be catastrophic, as it’s both very low-lying and heavily developed right to the shore. This is exactly the recipe for an awful disaster: high vulnerability, low awareness of the risk.

I had the opportunity to write this thanks to an invitation from the great writer Amitav Ghosh, who was the guest editor for this issue of ToI. I was thrilled to get an email this past summer from Amitav, in which he said that he had enjoyed my book Storm Surge and wanted to talk to me about climate change and the risk to Mumbai. This was related to a series of lectures he was to give (now has given) at the University of Chicago in which climate change is a central theme, and which will be turned into a book in due time.

Amitav and I subsequently met to discuss the science of climate change and tropical cyclones in my apartment in New York as he was making his way to Chicago. By this time I had begun making my way through his books. They are wonderful. Themes of history, environment, ecology, and climate are woven through them, and cyclones figure prominently as plot elements in at least a couple. I got several copies signed.

So now the op-ed has come out. (The issue also has an interview with Amitav himself, and a piece by Christian Parenti on the relationship between climate and Naxalite violence in India.) Coincidentally, my piece on hypothetical flooding of Mumbai appeared at the same time as a new burst of extreme rainfall was causing very real flooding in Chennai, on India’s opposite coast.


Infrared satellite image from November 17, showing a disturbance that one of the earlier waves of flooding in Chennai.

The Chennai flooding had begun a couple of weeks earlier, when cyclone BOB3 (“BOB” stands for “Bay of Bengal” – this storm was never strong enough to get a proper name) came ashore. This is the storm that had formed in the Bay of Bengal while cyclone Megh was in the Arabian Sea, heading for Yemen. Some forecast models predicted that BOB3 would cross the subcontinent and reach the Arabian Sea itself. But it didn’t do that. It hung around over land as a disorganized disturbance, dumping lots of rain.

Then another major burst on December 1 – a foot of rain fell on that one day. This after 40 inches in November (from BOB3 and a couple of other storms) – three times the average in Chennai for that month, and about equal to New York City’s annual average.

While it was a tremendous amount of rain, some argue that the flooding was made much more severe by careless development of Chennai in recent years, as floodplains and drainage channels have been paved over. The story is similar in Mumbai, where destruction of mangroves and river channelization have been blamed for similarly exacerbating the flood which occurred there in 2005 (also driven by rain, not storm surge, nor related to a cyclone) – and will similarly make things worse if, someday, a cyclone causes a major storm surge there. And to New York City, for that matter, where real estate development is now hot again in some of the areas worst hit by Sandy. I don’t know that op-eds or books can make much difference in the face of such indifference to risk, but it’s worth trying.


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